Viewpoint (January 01, 2010)

Because competition amongst Vancouver architects is so high (the city has the highest concentration of architects per capita in Canada), many firms have been forced to either merge their practices–as Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects has done recently with Cohos Evamy–or engage in research that distinguishes them from the rest of the pack. Bing Thom Architects has developed research and policy reports on housing and changing demographics. Henriquez Partners Architects intends to publish an issues-related book every two years–its latest volume is to be released shortly. Although many of the city’s architecture firms are staffed with “LEED-ites” who are well-versed in all things “sustainable,” one firm–Busby Perkins + Will–remains the leader in this regard. Under the direction of Peter Busby, who continues to use that rare combination of strong design skills and business acumen to advocate for greener cities, Busby Perkins + Will has recently launched a new online poll to question Vancouverites’ opinion of their precious skyline and the environmental implications of intensifying the city’s downtown core.

For those unfamiliar with the shape of Vancouver’s downtown peninsula, it is a carefully monitored and controlled entity, with view cones (developed in part by Busby Bridger Architects in 1989), height restrictions and design guidelines that have taken decades to develop and accept. But as the city grows, what are the real benefits of mitigating Vancouver’s carbon footprint, and what are the realistic limitations to its growth? Entitled “Shape Vancouver 2050” (, Busby’s initiative was developed in conjunction with the developer Concord Pacific. The project involves an interactive website allowing visitors to clearly visualize–through the manipulation of building heights and densities–how taller buildings can affect variables like carbon savings, energy consumption, infrastructure costs and automobile usage.

The survey makes no claim that tall buildings are a panacea for our cities’ environmental ills, but it certainly makes us aware of how many dollars, tonnes of carbon, and cubic feet of asphalt can be saved if we can promote higher-density urban living. Shape Vancouver is merely intended to gauge the public’s opinion of the extent to which we can alter Vancouver’s skyline for the better, being careful to note that “it does not provide metrics for more complex issues such as affordability, amenities, transportation or other social issues.” The initial results were released in mid-January with ongoing results and commentary continuing thereafter. Based on responses from participants, an average build-out should be developed by the beginning of February.

Hopefully, the survey will provide guidance for the City of Vancouver to correlate issues affecting sustainable design practices with existing and increasingly obsolete zoning regulations. The City’s planning department still struggles to develop a firm direction regarding the implementation of proactive sustainable planning measures. But while the City has been promoting its EcoDensity and Greenest City platforms, Busby has been working hard at testing and evolving the implications of increased density through his own list of projects, especially in the areas surrounding the Canada Line, for which his firm has been commissioned to design three stations.

While we appreciate Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s 2020 action plan entitled “A Bright Green Future”–part of his desire to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020–the City would be wise to move beyond motherhood statements and gear up toward an action plan that promotes and builds real projects, not just publish a wish list of benchmarks. Simply put, if the implications of Shape Vancouver 2050 and its findings are folded into building and zoning regulations, the City will find that its accomplishments may prove more tangible than any of its interminable eco-reports. It isn’t just the competition amongst Vancouver architects that is fierce, but also that city’s need to compete on the global stage. Vancouver must shape up, or lose its capacity to become a global leader in sustainable living.

Ian Chodikoff